CHILDREN'S SUMMER SPECIAL / The next big screen thing: Megadrive, Super NES, Mega CD - the video games war of the big companies has been escalating for years. A price mega-dive could be on the way, says Phil Dourado

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The Independent Culture
LAST month saw one of those moments that every parent of a pre-adolescent dreads: the launch of a new system from one of the two main video games suppliers, Sega. (The other, for those who have slept through all the hype, is Nintendo.) Just three years ago, parents had to adjust to the prospect of paying pounds 80 or so for the basic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Sega's rival Master System. Each was a 'closed' system - neither would play games made for the other - and the games were a whopping pounds 30 each.

But pay out we did, under considerable pressure, in our millions. Television sets across the land were taken over by the Mario Brothers and Megaman. There is an art to levering up the amount a consumer is prepared to pay, and Nintendo and Sega have mastered it. Just as the market became saturated with NES and Master Systems (with over 1.5 million of each sold), both companies came out with a new product; Sega slightly ahead with its Megadrive and Nintendo following last year with the Super NES, each retailing at a heart-stopping pounds 150 or so, with each game costing up to pounds 50.

As well as not playing each other's games, the Super NES would not play NES games and the Megadrive would not play Master System games. 'Having convinced us he couldn't hold his head up in the playground without an NES, our 11-year-old wanted to sell his system, complete with six games which had cost us around pounds 240 over the previous year, for pounds 50 through the local paper,' says Sandy Gibson, who has two children. 'We made him advertise the lot for pounds 80 as a compromise. He didn't get a single offer. Everyone was trying to offload their old games and systems so they could put the money towards a Super NES.'

Now it's happened again. From April to December of last year, 750,000 Super NESs were sold, while Sega claims a million of its Megadrives are now in circulation. Having been told that both these systems were the nearest thing to arcade standard you can get (the same claim was made for the original NES), we are now told to think again, with the help of a two-minute-long television commercial, confusingly dubbed Sega Pirate TV, and high-profile billboard ads.

The Mega CD (see review overleaf), the subject of this hard sell, ups the stakes to a thumping pounds 270. It plays games that come on a CD instead of a cartridge. Only, it won't work on its own: it has to be plugged into the Megadrive, giving a combined cost of pounds 400.

Some in the industry feel that, at the tail end of a recession, Sega has gone too far. The company won't say how fast the Mega-CD is selling, but Nintendo has supposedly postponed plans for its own CD player till next year, with veiled threats that it will be 32-bit (more powerful than Sega's 16-bit version).

So what next? Prices may finally drop as competition opens out, following a pattern established in the 'serious' computing market. 'Prices are not going to stay this high. They'll be coming down,' says Garth Sumpter, editor of Computer and Video Games.

Waiting in the wings as the probable catalyst for this price plunge is the '3DO', a supposedly revolutionary multi-media CD system being put together by a consortium of heavyweights, including Time-Warner and Matsushita, due for launch next year. 'In the same way that no one manufacturer has the exclusive right to sell VHS tapes for video players, 3DO will become a global standard, opening the whole thing out,' says Jim Douglas, editor of Games Master Magazine. 'The games look as if they'll be phenomenal.' As close as you can get to arcade standard, no doubt. For once, it is Nintendo and Sega waiting for the 'Next Big Thing' to hit their pockets - rather than us parents.

DRIVE TESTS

MEGA-CD

Sega's son of Megadrive, which plays games that come on a CD rather than a cartridge. Price: pounds 270

Description: Players insert the game disc into the Mega-CD, plug that into the Megadrive and connect that to an ordinary television. The game is played on screen using electronic pads or joysticks.

It can play a new generation of interactive 'film-like' games featuring actors, in which the player can control the plot. The Mega-CD can also play music CDs.

Tester's verdict: 'Some of the graphics are better than non-CD systems,' says Bromley Sulaiman, aged 12. 'But the whole feel is a bit jerky and chunky for my liking.'

COMMODORE AMIGA

A PC-based system, the outsider in what has been a two-horse race between Sega and Nintendo. Price: from pounds 200

Description: With its keyboard and mouse, the Amiga has suffered from looking like a school computer (it can run educational software). But as the Amiga's power and standard of games has gone up, it has earned new respect. The sophisticated A1200 model costs around pounds 400, including a free game. Less powerful versions like the A500 start at pounds 200.

Tester's verdict: 'Some Amiga games for the A500 have graphics and animation that are as good as or better than Super Nintendo or Megadrive games,' says Matt Francis, aged 12. The latest A1200 model has been called 'stunning' by Computer and Video Games magazine.

GREY IMPORTS

Term used to describe a range of exotic rival systems from Japan and the US. Not available in shops, but advertised in UK games magazines. Prices: variable

Description: A typical 'grey import' is PC Engine, with its CD-playing add-on unit. Like Megadrive and Mega-CD, these are boxes that plug into the television. The PC Engine GT is a portable version, held in two hands. It has a built-in miniature screen, so you can play and walk into lamp posts at the same time.

Both products are made by NEC, and are considered to be at least as good as their Nintendo and Sega equivalents. Indeed, the GT is reputed to be streets ahead of any

hand-helds retailing in the UK. Another contender is the massively expensive Neo Geo, which can deliver exceptional animation - but at a price. Some games for it cost as much as pounds 180.

Tester's verdict: 'If you're going to shell out pounds 400 on a Mega-CD plus Megadrive,' says Jim Douglas, 'it's worth looking at some of the alternatives. PC Engine with its Turbo Duo CD unit is extraordinarily good.' The drawback with 'grey imports' is lack of warranty cover.

STARWING

Chart-topping space adventure game that runs on Nintendo's Super NES system. Price: around pounds 50

Description: In Starwing, you are a galactic fox (honestly), leading a small band of fighter craft that streak across the surfaces of alien planets, through meteor storms, black holes and strange dimensions, to search out and destroy Andross, leader of the evil empire. Only, between him and you are a zillion enemy spaceships and animated robotic monsters . . .

Starwing was a record-breaker as Starfox (a name felt to be too cute for UK kids) in the US, where it sold one million copies on its launch day. Nintendo hopes it will take over from Streetfighter II as the game most young players are talking about - and act as a spoiler for Sega's recently-launched Mega-CD.

Tester's verdict: 'In two years of playing video games I've never seen anything like this,' says Bromley Sulaiman. 'It has you on the edge of your seat; the 3D effects are incredible.'

(Photograph omitted)

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